The first time I met him Higgins totally shook me up when he told me why he came to live in Brooklyn.

   "I came to live in Brooklyn to avoid dying of natural causes," he said.

   I was struck dumb for a second, then said, "You're kidding."

   But he wasn't.

   Higgins, a dumpling of a man with an apple face, black seeds for eyes, and a short neck, had a bald head and a fringe of hair like a friar. He was about five foot six in elevator shoes and worked as an assistant in a laboratory that did research on what he called 'the innocent mice.' The way Higgins described his job I pictured the mice on crutches or in wheel chairs suffering terrible cramps. He felt sorry for those mice, injected with hepatitis, flu, and kidney problems.

   Higgins certainly had some strange ideas. We were having a cup of coffee in a cafeteria once when I told him I was thinking of going on a little vacation. Instead of asking me where, which is what you would expect him to ask, he says, "I know people who never came back."

   "From where?" It was me who asked him.

   "From anywhere," he says. "They weren't even on vacation."

   "What are you talking about?" I ask.

   He clammed up and left, his teeth clamped together, his chin jutting out.

   A few weeks later I found out by accident that years ago two of his teenage cousins had disappeared in Arizona during a kite flying contest they had traveled to take part in, sucked up by a cyclone. When I met him again in the cafeteria he was calm and friendly until I mentioned that I might be going out west.

   "Two of my cousins got sucked up by a cyclone there," he told me, "and neither they or their kites were ever seen again. Have a good time." Without finishing his coffee he got up and walked out tearing his paper napkin to shreds.

   It must have been months before I ran into Higgins again, this time in the library, one of my favorite haunts. He came over and sat down next to me with the book he was about to check out, "How The World Will End." I happened to be examining a collection of best loved nature poetry.

   "Isn't this a great line?" I asked him. "'I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.'"

   "That," he says, "is a guy kicking his own art in the ass. It's as if an MD would write, 'I think no doctor ever sees a healthy person as lovely as a disease-'" The librarian stole over as they always do and told us to shut up. Higgins took off. As it turned out, Higgins coming to Brooklyn to avoid dying of natural causes, as he saw them, made sense. Bit by bit I discovered that Higgins came from a sort of doomed family. Not only had his cousins been sucked up by a cyclone, but his aunt and uncle were buried by a snow avalanche in Switzerland, his sister's sister-in-law, an Italian, and her husband, visiting relatives in a Sicilian village were trapped in the sudden blowout of a volcano shortly after one of Higgins' grandfathers became separated from his party on a tour of Africa and got eaten by a tiger.

   There was even more, but I didn't want to hear it. It all came out in an explosion one afternoon on the beach. I spotted him sitting under a huge umbrella, a thick layer of suntan lotion on his face. When he found out how much I knew he said, "It's like a hard boiled egg in its shell that keeps growing in my chest. And if you think that I had it bad, lemme inform you you don't know the half of it." Whereupon Higgins begins a recitation of facts and figures he gathered over the years.

   "There are things people take for granted, never question, things the whole world accepts as life's greatest gifts. And those are the very ones waiting to slam you a whammy. Sleep is supposed to be such a great thing, but did you ever have nightmares? And what about friends, everybody thinks so much of? Most of them turn out to be phony, they talk behind your back about you. But the worst of all is nature itself."

   I couldn't believe him. "Nature?" I cried. "Man is a part of nature. He IS nature!"

   "You been taken in like everybody else! Oh, the breath-taking mountains! Oh, the mighty oceans! Oh, the deserts and forests! Don't you understand they're killers? Nature is out to kill you from the day you have to breathe her air- and miss six breaths and you're finished. But that's the least of it!" Instead of being the planet's most beautiful asset, nature, Higgins assured me is its most vicious enemy. He planned to expose the whole rotten mess in a book he was writing, 'Our Planet: Mother Nature's Bordello.' From the first flood, nature had been the outstanding enemy of mankind. You couldn't argue with him. He had all the facts in a little notebook he carried around that wiped up the floor with any of your arguments.

   "How would you have liked to be in Bangladesh in May 1985 when ten thousand people were blown away in typhoons?" Higgins demanded. "Or take the Peruvian earthquake in 1971. That was a neat little trick. Nature ate up 66,000 in one night. A monsoon in India only rubbed out 1,217, all drowned. But you would have loved the daddy of them all, the Huang Ho river in China in 1887 when nature swallowed 900,000 people in just a couple of gulps. Nature is out to get us all before our time. What's coming next is an inside job. She's got viruses that kill the antibiotics we thought were gonna save us from horrible diseases. It's nature or us. That's it."

   Higgins gave a deep sigh.

   "I came here because there are no major cataclysms in Brooklyn. It's one of the safest places in America, even if there is a once in a while snow storm. I work in the lab because I want to see in advance which killers nature is working on to get us. And I don't go on vacations. You run to see some famous sight and get trapped in a landslide, or get burned in a forest fire, or drowned in a tidal wave. Nature is a fake and a fraud. She's no mother, brother."

   As if nature heard him curse her, when Higgins went on a picnic in Prospect Park, one of Brooklyn's prettiest, he should have known better than to stand under the trees in the thunderstorm that suddenly hit. He got struck by lightning and went up in a cloud of smoke. But he sure convinced me that too much fooling around with nature is certainly taking your life in your hands. The way we're tearing her apart you can hardly blame her for getting mad.


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Copyright August 3, 2000-

 

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